Ian Ellis, marketing & sales specialist manager, Siemens says smart technology in HVAC is a solution available for all.
The term ‘smart building’ is relatively new, coined in the 2000s. Initially it was largely an ideal, a concept, something esoteric that might happen at some point in the future. Now it is a distinct reality, the significant advances in the IoT turning concepts into reality with tangible and measurable benefits. It is no longer a buzzword but increasingly a factor in everyday life, with HVAC being a major part of this smart revolution.
The megatrends being felt throughout the globe are helping to focus on the necessity for smart buildings i.e. those which interact with people, systems and external elements around them to meet the needs of owners and occupants by delivering a safe, comfortable, energy efficient environment that accentuates the wellbeing of the building users. Some 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050 with, by that point, some 75% more energy estimated to be used for cooling than heating. With the EU striving to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, the need to find increasingly efficient ways to operate and manage buildings is crucial given that 40% of all global energy is used by buildings.
An important point to make here is that this focus needs to be applied to all buildings. While the term smart building is now being demystified, misunderstanding still exists. Many associate the term with prestigious buildings in major cities using the latest IoT technologies with all the building services working together. This tends to imply a certain scale to the building but, in truth, any building can be smart, irrespective of its size. Building Management Systems (BMS) and controllers are scalable right down to units which have only a small number of input and output connections but still deliver powerful control solutions. One of the few benefits of the current record high energy costs is that it has brought a focus for everybody on how energy savings can be made. This feeds into the concept of the smart building and helps to foster the realisation that it is not confined to huge skyscrapers but is also relevant to the many smaller facilities that make up a significant proportion of the total building stock.
Effective use of data
Buildings are a central element of a future which needs to continue to embrace the importance of a reduction in carbon emissions and energy consumption. Fundamental to achieving this is interconnected technologies that make buildings more intelligent and responsive. Underpinning this interconnectivity is the IoT and the opportunity this provides for the collection and sharing of data. Big Data is a term that is increasingly used. This describes the extremely large and diverse sets of data that are growing exponentially as the reliance on digital technologies increases. The wealth of data that is now available through connected devices is one of the challenges – intelligent analysis is required to produce valuable insights and to identify future trends as the sheer volume means that traditional data processing software is often unable to store it efficiently or use it meaningfully. Data for data’s sake offers no benefits – it is the leveraging of that data to make smarter decisions that provides the benefits for the stakeholders in a smart building. Importantly, different stakeholders will require different information, from that which informs reduced capital and operation expenses, better space and asset efficiency, to increased staff productivity, optimised safety and security, reduced risk and increased revenue growth.
Controlling the environment
In addition to the energy price crisis, another global event that has increased the focus on the smart building, particularly in terms of its capacity to provide a comfortable work environment, is the COVID pandemic. As people have gradually returned to workplaces following enforced periods of working at home, so the need has come to the fore to ensure that those workplaces offer a healthy environment conducive to optimising productivity.
Will the conference room be cool enough for tomorrow’s presentation? Is power being wasted on unoccupied rooms? Have lights been left on after hours? Is ventilation optimised to reduce potentially harmful airborne particles? These are not new questions but they are now more of a focus.
Smart devices can automate a lot of these processes, monitoring various aspects of the building and reporting to a building manager. Open and easy-to-use IoT solutions are available and, as already stated, they are not only for large multi-million pound skyscraper office complexes but also for small to medium facilities such as schools, shops, apartments and small offices. They can accomplish essential daily building management tasks from one place via a cloud-based interface which requires no additional gateway or software. Alarm notifications regarding potential issues can be sent to a desktop or smartphone, along with graphics that visualise historical trends, enabling building owners and operators to learn from the building insights and thereby optimise building operations.
With smart sensors in place, building managers, engineers and technicians can resolve and diagnose issues and address them. Importantly, they also provide the data to undertake preventative maintenance, an often more cost-effective approach than dealing with issues as they arise and one which is less disruptive to a building’s day-to-day operations.
Sensors can monitor a range of functions, from room temperatures and room occupancy to lighting and air quality, including providing alerts for even the smallest of harmful particles such as PM2.5, PM10, CO2 and VOC (volatile organic compounds). Options are also available which control dampers through electric actuators. Each damper connected to an HVAC system can send and receive signals, opening and closing automatically as necessary to direct air to where it is required.
Given that successful smart solutions often rely on data sourced from many different devices, open protocols are an important consideration when looking at options for building automation. Initially manufacturers of HVAC devices largely had their own proprietary systems with no common language, making integration of devices from different manufacturers effectively impossible or, at best, problematic. Open protocols are now widely adopted, from MODBUS and LON to KNX and BACnet. KNX has developed from a system predominantly employed for lighting to one which is now widely used in controlling most parts of the building. It offers an excellent platform at room level, allowing integrated rooms to combine lighting, blinds and HVAC into a single energy efficient approach.
Combining the real and digital words
Smart Buildings have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. They are starting to become the norm rather than the exception and this will only increase as the potential is recognised, not only for large more complex and expensive buildings but also for smaller facilities. The three main objectives when creating a smart building are: people’s health, safety and wellbeing; building assets and business goals; sustainability and energy-efficiency. This is a focus which holds true, irrespective of the size of a building, and is ultimately all about delivering the best possible environment for the people that use it. Combining the real and the digital worlds is creating sustainable, innovative value for people, businesses and the generations to come.